How to Help Your Child Deal
with Divorce or Separation

See also: Conflict Resolution

Divorce or separation is a challenging situation for adults, but it is especially difficult for children. Thousands of relationships break down each year, and every divorce or separation affects the children involved.

When it comes to family relationships and an imminent divorce or separation between parents, every child reacts differently. How your child responds to the situation will depend on their age, personality and the circumstances of the relationship breakdown.

The initial reaction for many children can be one of shock and many children suffer feelings of frustration, anger, sadness or anxiety. They can also encounter feelings of guilt, a fear of abandonment, conflicts of loyalty, and grief.

All couples, especially where there are children involved, should attempt relationship counselling and, if issues cannot be resolved, seek mediation to help sort separation arrangements. Even the most difficult circumstances can sometimes reach resolution with the help of a mediator.

You will need to make many decisions that will affect your children. For instance, you will have to decide with whom the children will reside (custody), and the contact rights for the other parent. You’ll also need to reach a mutual agreement on where your children will go to school, and agree on any financial commitments involving your children. If the personal differences between you and your ex are irreconcilable and you're seeking sole custody of your child, you might want to consider a legal name change for your son or daughter as well. This can make things a lot easier for both you and your child because when one parent is responsible for all major decisions, parents don't need to communicate as much. This, in turn, reduces the possibility of conflict between parents.

Going through separation or divorce is a stressful time. To ensure you make the best decisions possible for you and your children, mediation can prove invaluable.

What is Mediation?

Family mediation is different from relationship counselling.

A mediator’s role is to help plan mutually beneficial arrangements once a separation or divorce is imminent or has already happened. A mediator can help to settle disputes over contact with children, living arrangements and financial commitments.

See our page on Mediation Skills for more information.

Talking About Splitting Up

Telling your children about a separation or divorce isn’t easy. Undoubtedly, it will change lives and your child or children are likely to feel upset. Despite the difficulties, there are ways you can tell your children to help them feel supported.

Useful advice from the relationship counselling service, Relate, includes:

  • Avoid giving details your child doesn’t need to hear, such as information about affairs. Try not to be critical or apportion blame. Keep heated discussions and legal talk away from the kids.

  • Reassure your children that it’s OK to be upset. Let them know that it’s not their fault and that both parents still love them.

  • Tell them how their lives will be affected in a language they can understand. For example, ‘Daddy will pick you up from school, but he won’t be here to read you a story at bed-time. Mummy will do that instead.”

  • It’s OK to tell your children that you don’t know the answer to something. Tell your child you will find out or think about it and let them know.

  • Encourage your child to ask questions now, or at any other time.

  • If possible, when you tell the children, make sure the other parent is around afterwards.

  • If one parent is leaving, be clear to your children about where they are going and when they will be able to see them again. Also, reassure your children about how they can contact the leaving parent when they are not around.

  • Don’t burden your child or children with the responsibility of making decisions about the arrangements for them.

Handling Your Children’s Reactions

All children will handle the news of a separation or divorce differently.

Some will be upset or angry, while others will seem not to be bothered, though their reactions may come out later or in other ways, such as physical symptoms (tummy ache and headaches), changes in appetite, or behaviour towards friends and peers at school.

Continue to keep a dialogue open with your child about what is happening. Importantly, your child or children will want to know about how your separation or divorce will affect their day-to-day lives. It’s not always easy to be honest when you are feeling worried and stressed and don’t have all the answers, but telling your children what they need to know is the right thing to do.

Minimise disruption to routine

Most importantly, when your child or children are faced with uncertainty, stick as much as possible to their normal daily routine. This will at least provide some stability while they are getting used to what a divorce or separation really means.

Quality of parenting from both parents during this time is crucial. Children need to feel safe and nurtured at the best of times. Multiple difficult changes could have a harmful effect on your children.

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Answering questions

Be prepared to answer questions from your kids about your separation or divorce. As your children start to process the information they will have further questions.

Here are 5 tips to help you.

  1. Be patient. Stay calm and keep your answers consistent. Your child has to get used to the news.
  2. Give age-appropriate answers. Younger children need fewer details than older ones.
  3. Be honest. Children deserve to hear the truth, but only give appropriate information – spare them the details about infidelity.
  4. Acknowledge feelings rather than dismiss them.
  5. Be consistent. Consistency and routine are incredibly important during this time of uncertainty.

Common questions you will need to answer include:

  • Who will I live with?
  • Will I move house?
  • Where will I go to school?
  • Where will each parent live?
  • Will we still go on holiday?
  • Can I still see my friends?
  • Can I still go to summer camp/dance school/ski-trip/party etc.
  • Can I still do my after-school clubs/favourite activities?

As much as possible both parents should work together to keep routines and discipline consistent. Similar routines and expectations between parents will help to reduce anxiety. Get help to deal with your own painful feelings about the breakdown in your relationship. Recognise signs of stress and let your children’s teachers know. Change is hard, but handled carefully you and your children will adjust.

Offering outside help

All children will deal with the divorce or separation of their parents differently. Some will find it difficult to express feelings or talk about what is happening. If you are worried about your child’s well-being, finding another family member they can talk to, or even a counsellor, will give them an outlet and help them to make sense of what is happening.

About the Author

Dakota Murphey is a writer based in Brighton, specialising in both writing about and practising the correlation between management training and interpersonal relationships. Having written for numerous online and print authorities, Dakota has been published on a wide range of psychology and relationship-building related topics - covering both in-depth studies for the workplace and, more recently, matters affecting personal lives.